The announcement last weekend by Labor Knesset Member and former finance minister Avraham (Beiga) Shohat that he was resigning his Knesset seat and quitting politics in general after 39 years should provide a much-needed opportunity to consider the parlou s state of our legislature.
Our entire governmental system has come in for widespread criticism from many quarters during the past two decades and more. The burgeoning of street politics as a substitute for a paralyzed parliamentary system has meant that the legislative arm of our government has justifiably come in for much more fault-finding than have our executive and judicial arms.
As a supporter of the recent withdrawal from Gush Katif and northern Samaria
I must honestly admit that there was a meas ure of justice to the claims of the settlers that the entire process was carried out high-handedly and left much to be desired in parliamentary democratic practice. But such claimants must come into court with clean hands. The entire settlement process since the early 1980s, with Arik Sharon
in the van, was carried out with similar subterfuge, usually bypassing the Knesset.
Beiga's announcement should serve as an opportunity for reflection and action specifically because he was, so untypically, one of a small and diminishing number of good MKs.
He was an excellent minister of finance under Yitzhak Rabin
and Ehud Barak
and a hard-working member of the Knesset Finance Committee in the last four years. In this regard he put to shame both the Likud's
Binya min Netanyahu and Labor's Barak, who both quit the Knesset the moment they lost the election for prime minister and went to parlay their political connections into big money.
To judge from the tenor of many Letters to the Editor in The Jerusalem Post, t he Knesset's ills would be overcome automatically, if we would only go over to elections by constituency rather than the extreme form of proportional representation that was inherited from the worldwide elections to the World Zionist Congress which preced ed the creation of the State of Israel
. Those who argue in favor of such a change are usually immigrants from the US, the UK or the Commonwealth countries
where constituency elections are in force.
I HAVE always opposed such a change because of my own own awareness of the widespread political corruption of the US system, which I believe would plummet to even dizzier depths here. It is usually argued that the constituency system provides much greater access by voters to â€œtheir own Congressmanâ€ as opposed to the PR system where candidates are placed on their party's list for the Knesset by some sort of central committee or smoke-filled backroom equivalent.
The problem with this argument is that it is nearly always raised by politically activist Jewish vot ers who parlayed their activism and monetary contributions to candidates, into contact with the candidate they elected. The vast majority of constituents in the US, who are neither Jewish nor committed contributors, do not benefit from such contact and in fluence.
I believe the situation in Israel would be worse if we made the shift. This is because the next great threat to our democratic system which is already looming on the horizon is the pernicious affect of big money on political power. The galloping concentration of wealth in Israel in recent years cannot but express itself in the buying of Knesset members and even of entire parties by such moneyed families.
SO, WHAT problems does Beiga's resignation raise? First and foremost is the value judgment that the raison d'etre of being elected to the Knesset is to become a government minister as soon as possible. The concept of making a political career purely as an MK has become something to sneer at. One of the reasons that the Knesset does such an abom inable job in both legislation and in overseeing the Executive's actions is that so few MKs ever have the chance to develop the expertise needed for those roles. That would require that most MKs see their parliamentary role as the height of their ambitions.
Critics of the Knesset often point to the nearly empty plenum chamber. To which defenders of the Knesset assert that its real work is done in committees. But a check of many committees show that absenteeism is often just as bad there as it is in the plenum. It is common to see committees whose sessions consist of the chairman and one coalition and one opposition member holding hearings on proposed legislation or ministry activities, with government officials running rings around the hapless MKs becau se of the yawning disparity in their expertise.
Proposals for reform nearly always bring us to the chicken-and-egg problem. No reform will work unless it succeeds in attracting a much higher quality of candidate to contest Knesset elections and to provid e the foundations for an improved Knesset; but such impressive candidates (of which Israel is full) will not switch careers in mid-life to serve in the sort of Knesset we have today.
Different reform proposals could work, but only if they were accompanied by the simultaneous emergence in a number of parties of highly motivated new candidates with clean hands and with the determination to make the Knesset work as a legislature and as an effective brake on the tendency to an â€œimperial Executiveâ€ which has developed in the US.
The writer, a former managing editor of the
Post, is a former lecturer in political science.